Pussy, economically anxious, asked, “Can we eat the salt afterward?”
“Then, may we do it, Milly?”
“Darling, yes. How nice you always fix things, Mr. Tony!”
Long before he had known them he had fixed things—things which would have turned this poor room into an Aladdin’s palace. There was that Christmas Eve at the Daltons’. It had been his idea to light the great hall with a thousand candles when they brought in the Yule log, and to throw perfumed fagots on the fire.
He came back to the round stove and the tiny tree. “I like to fix things,” he said. “Once upon a time—”
They leaned forward eagerly to this opening.
“Of course you know it isn’t true,” he prefaced.
“Of course it couldn’t be true”—Pussy was reassuringly sceptical—“the things that you tell us couldn’t really happen—ever—”
“Well, once upon a time, there was a tree in a great house by a great river, and it was set in a great room with squares of black-and-white marble for a floor, and with a fountain with goldfish swimming in its basin, and there were red-and-blue parrots on perches, and orange-trees in porcelain pots, and the tree itself wasn’t a pine-tree or a fir or a cedar; it was a queer round, clipped thing of yew, and it had red and blue and orange balls on it, and in the place of a wax angel on top there was a golden Buddha, and there were no candles—but the light shone out and out of it, like the light shines from the moon.”
“Was it a Christmas tree?” Pussy asked, as he paused.
“Yes, but the people who trimmed it and the ones who came to see it didn’t believe in the Wise Men, or the Babe in the Manger, or the shepherds who watched their flocks by night—they just worshiped beauty and art—and other gods—but it was a corking tree—”
“You use such funny words,” Pussy crowed ecstatically. “Who ever heard of a corking tree?”
He smiled at her indulgently. He was warmer now, and as he leaned back in his chair and unbuttoned his coat he seemed to melt suddenly into something that was quite gentlemanly in pose and outline. “Well, it really was a corking tree, Pussy.”
“What’s a Buddha?” Milly asked, making a young Madonna of herself as she bent over the baby.
“A gentle god that half of the world worships,” Ostrander said, “but the people who put him on the tree didn’t worship anything—they put him there because he was of gold and ivory and was a lovely thing to look at—”
“Oh,” said Pussy, with her mouth round to say it, “oh, how funny you talk, Mr. Tony!” She laughed, with her small hands beating her knees.
She was presently, however, very serious, as she set the table. There was little formality of service. Just three plates and some bread.
Milly, having carried the baby into the other room, was hesitatingly hospitable. “Won’t you have supper with us, Mr. Tony?”